Going wireless is about the bottom line. A 2003 study Conducted by NOP World Technology on Behalf of Cisco Systems showed that adopting a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) could increase a company's productivity by up to 27%. Another study done by Intel found that it takes just 11 minutes of increased productivity per employee per week to pay for the cost of an average WLAN deployment. The study continued that a WLAN deployment of 32 people over three years could turn a $20,000 investment into a $300,000 benefit.

In a nutshell, a WLAN provides computing flexibility. It can help employees take advantage of mobile networking for e-mail, Internet access, and sharing files regardless of where they are in the office. This, in turn, can enhance the creative process by letting laptop users meet in the conference room to collaborate on a project, or enable work in non-traditional environments such as the cafeteria, a cube down the hall, the office gym, etc. Additionally, a WLAN environment can be moved around at will, without the need for new cable runs or changes in the wiring closet--leaving your IT staff free to work on more bottom-line oriented projects.

But the benefits don't stop at the office door. Your customers will appreciate the real-time inventory statistics your warehouse can serve up easily when connected to WLAN, allowing them immediate access to product ship status or item availability.

So what's stopping you from going wireless? Here, we pose a few questions about the design of a WLAN to help make your decision about going wireless a bit simpler.

Designing a WLAN

Designing a wireless network involves many considerations. A good starting point lies in the answers to several questions:

What will be the purpose of the WLAN?
Will it support mission-critical applications, or be used for convenience and guest access? The answers will help determine the placement of the WLAN within your network, and the type/quality of equipment you select.

Who will utilize the wireless network?
Will the WLAN be used by one or two mobile workers, or will it replace a traditional wired LAN for an entire department? Knowing how many simultaneous users helps determine which wireless standard to use, how many access points you need for a given area, and where to put them.

What specific locations in or around your building/campus need service, and at what speed?
Spot or "island" coverage is much easier to plan for than complete building/campus coverage, because there are fewer problems with channel interference. Knowing specifically where you want coverage greatly simplifies the time and cost of the design process.

What type of devices will be used?
Laptops? PDAs? Voice over IP/ Internet Phones? All of the above? Different devices and applications may require different features on the wireless access points, such as multiple network support or network Quality of Service (QOS).

What applications will run over the WLAN?
Different applications will require differing levels of bandwidth. Requirements for file transfer and Internet browsing are much different than voice over IP traffic.

How many simultaneous users of a specific application will use wireless in a given area?
Many users of many different applications over the WLAN may require the deployment of multiple WLAN technologies for a given area--for example 802.11b/g may be deployed for IP phones and 802.11a might be deployed in the same area for higher-bandwidth applications, such as file transfer or some Web-based or database applications.

If you are planning a WLAN for a small area, like a conference room, simply checking for signal interference and finding an available spot to place and wire one or two access points evenly spaced should be sufficient for reliable WLAN coverage. If your plans call for coverage throughout a building or campus with many access points, especially if multiple access points are involved, you should enlist the services of a qualified WLAN design firm. Every design should include a physical site survey of the intended coverage area.

Is there a plan in place to properly secure the wireless network?
When any organization makes the decision to deploy a wireless network, a plan for securing the infrastructure needs to be in place before deployment. It is possible to secure a wireless network to a point that would make unauthorized access extremely unlikely, as well as meet the legislated requirements of most industries. Do not rely on basic encryption, as this standard has many well-known flaws. To ensure the best protection, multiple levels of security should be used, and continuous monitoring of the WLAN should be present. (We'll discuss security in depth in an upcoming column.)

Going wireless can be simple as setting up a conference room with a WLAN to enabling your entire warehouse. Regardless of the application, any business employing wireless networking will reap the benefits of increased productivity and flow of communication with employees and customers alike.

Derek Johnson is the Director of Business Development for Embee Technologies, a systems integration firm that specializes in wireless LAN/WAN technologies. He may be reached at djohnson@embeetech.com.

Luke Slymen is the Chief Technology Officer of Embee Technologies. He may be reached at lslymen@embeetech.com.

SIDEBAR: Recommended Solutions and Resources

WLAN Benefits Calculator
For a company that is considering enabling some portion of their employees with wireless LAN, the WLAN Benefits Calculator is a tool that addresses the question: What will be my return on investment if I make an investment in WLAN technology?

Want to learn more?

Wi-Fi Planet


The Unofficial 802.11 Security Web Page

SIDEBAR: Wireless Basics

There are a few key words and definitions that you will encounter as you embark on your wireless endeavor:

WLAN (Wireless Local Access Network): a LAN that can be connected to via a wireless connection.
802.11 is a family of wireless networking standards developed by the IEEE, including the following standards:

802.11b is the most widely supported standard, with three non-overlapping radio channels in the 2.4Ghz unlicensed frequency space to choose from and a maximum data throughput of 11 megabits per second. Indoor range approx. 300 feet but varies considerably depending on the environment.
802.11g is an improvement over the 802.11b standard in that it has a maximum throughput of 54Mbps and is backwards compatible with 802.11b client devices. However, 802.11g uses the same frequency range as 802.11b, and this range is getting very crowded in many commercial areas.
802.11a has eight non-overlapping channels in the unlicensed 5.8Ghz frequency space and has a maximum throughput of 54Mbps. These advantages allow for higher user densities in a given area. However, 802.11a equipment is not as widely available as 802.11b/g, and is usually more expensive. Range is usually a bit less than 802.11b/g in a given environment.

Access Point (AP): Also frequently referred to as "wireless routers," "wireless gateways," and "base stations." The hub of a wireless network. Wireless clients connect to the access point, and traffic between two clients must travel through the access point.

Hot Spot: A place where you can connect to a public wireless network.